“Ho, look to the Queen there!” – Hamlet
In all our lives, we are probably fated to encounter The Histrionic: the person who lives at the centre of a soap opera that is constantly being extended with each moment of time, a play in which they are the central character – loveable, beautiful, witty, brave and often (naturally) tragic. In this melodrama, everyone else is a bit player. You know the kind of person I mean. You are likely to have one as a colleague, though not necessarily in the Drama Department.
If you teach one, that is unfortunate – perhaps even more so for the other students than for you. Teenagers do not always have the maturity to recognise the shallowness, self-centredness and destructiveness of the The Drama Queen. For them, the drama can be impressive, and will probably add entertainment to lessons where they might otherwise have to do things they don’t feel like. It is precisely for these reasons that the teacher must be skilled in dethroning The Drama Queen.
- Definition: What are the behaviours of concern?
- Motivation: What is rewarding (motivating) these behaviours?
- Strategy: How do we change the contingencies in the environment so that it is more rewarding to work with the teacher than against him or her?
The Drama Queen wants the lesson to be about them. They are constantly trying to pull focus, but unlike the student who simply wants peer attention, the Drama Queen needs to project a persona. They will, therefore, find things to be upset about, or things to be amused by, and respond disproportionately. Emotions will be sudden and intense. Everything is, of course, someone else’s fault. They will try to charm the teacher into complying with them, pull the teacher into sympathising with them, or if that fails, accuse the teacher of mistreating them.
The Drama Queen is of course motivated by attention – but even more by the swirl of emotions they experience as they proceed from one tempestuous situation or relationship to another. This internal storm provides its own reinforcement mechanism and is largely beyond the classroom teacher’s control.
In order to shift the contingencies, we have to address the variables that we can control. These are, primarily, access to peer and teacher attention, and secondly, access to a performance space.
As always, seating needs to be considered. But The Drama Queen will still perform. Simply use the school systems to settle them or remove them. If you don’t have school systems, that can be turned into a good thing: you can work with colleagues to set up your own. To minimise the damage, you have to see trouble brewing and respond quickly. The basic rule of thumb needs to be: one calm, specific warning, followed by implementation of the sanction if the behaviour recurs. For dramatic, rapidly escalating behaviour, the sanction needs to involve removal. Your school may allow you to use a ‘second chance’ system which I quite like: I remove the student, give them couple of minutes to calm down, and then speak to them (standing in the doorway so that I can monitor my class). If they are calming down, they come back in with a clear redirection to work and we go on. If not, I give them work to do elsewhere and we work it out later. The key point is that they are denied access to an audience.
You must also manage the amount of attention you give the Histrionic. Histrionics will bombard you with questions, because they want to draw you into the drama. By answering their questions, you are buying into their script. This is a no-go area: you as the teacher must dictate the screenplay here. The student cannot drive this conversation, and should not be engaged with until the storm of emotions has died down and some sense of perspective has returned. Histrionics will also have dramatic stories to tell of themselves or other family members being ill, attacked, suicidal, or abusive. These stories may contain some truth, but the teacher must not buy in to them as a justification for misbehaviour. (NB if there is an allegation or disclosure, the teacher MUST follow the relevant procedures for reporting it). The conversation needs to be about the appropriate behaviour in lessons, the effect on other students, and the histrionic’s own progress. This does not mean we should be cold or inhumane; simply that we have to hold to dealing with what we can control, not the nebulous circumstances and reactions which are being used to justify wholly inappropriate behaviour.
I do not recommend trying to rehabilitate the Drama Queen, but it is possible, through a careful, kind and professional assessment of the student, to manage them into a greater degree of compliance and hopefully progress. The most important thing is to stop them hindering other students by making your lesson about themselves. Here are some suggestions:
Histrionics love praise. Contingent praise, for effort and improvement, for focus and responding to feedback, will be welcome. Be utterly neutral about dramas, to the point of looking bored. They will quickly sense how they need to act to get the kind of attention they want.
Do not buy into provocation. If they can’t get praise or worship, Histrionics will go for being victims, and they are often quite skilled at it, getting plenty of practice at home, with friends, and by watching Eastenders. Any attention for poor behaviour will be reinforcing, so be as low-key as possible while challenging any disruption to your lesson. Do not react to accusations of unfair treatment. Insist they calm down, kindly but neutrally. Do not engage until they have. Then get them to answer your questions, not the other way around.
Apparently it is possible to have intelligent conversations with Histrionics, though I can recall few. It is perfectly possible to like a Histrionic, and even, in calmer moments, to give them some sound advice. A few grow out of it.
There are also some who are more dangerous than being merely histrionic. These are the Narcisissists, and they are much more difficult and destructive. They will require a post all to themselves. (Indeed, they would insist on one each).